Since the first ads emerged in ancient times, they have been a key part of everyday business for countless sellers, services, and organisations. And for good reason – they’re effective, putting a branded message in front of countless potential consumers and fostering sales and conversions.
However, ads can do so much more than just sell – they can radically impact the way a whole society thinks and acts. When executed well, don’t just build brand awareness and attract new customers: they can change perceptions, revolutionise a culture, and even completely shift public opinion on controversial issues.
In fact, some deeply-ingrained elements of our pop culture and society come straight from genius ad campaigns – campaigns so effective that they made a lasting impact on the word, shaping culture and changing public expectations to such a degree that you might not have even realised there was a time before their views approach were the norm.
Don’t believe us? Read on to find out about 7 iconic things you probably didn’t know came straight from killer ad campaigns
1. Santa's Look
It’s a myth that Coca-Cola created the Santa that we know and love today (he was represented similarly since at least the American Civil War), but they’re definitely the ones who popularized the large, jolly look. Prior to 1931, Santa’s depiction was a lot more like that of the 3rd-century bishop (Saint Nicholas) his legend developed from.
Haddon Sundblom’s legendary cartoon depiction featured in Coca-Cola’s 1931 Christmas “My hat’s off to the pause that refreshes” campaign served to popularise the depiction that we all know and live today. The new representation, likely inspired by Clement Clarke Moore’s poem A Visit from St Nicholas, quickly caught on with the public.
Almost 90 years later, we’re still depicting Santa just as Coca-Cola did, and Santa has continued to feature in every one of Coke’s Christmas ads since the 1930s. Although they likely didn’t intend to completely change the way we depict an iconic cultural figure, Coca-Cola’s ad campaign has made a mark on the biggest holiday of the year which stands strong nearing a century on.
2. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day”
Breakfast has always existed in some form, but it didn’t always have the value or structure it’s given today. Medieval Europeans tended to skip breakfast altogether, and middle and upper class Americans ate a dinner-like breakfast up until the mid-1800s, when breakfast cereals started to develop. Even then, many people skipped breakfast if they didn’t feel a need for it.
It was the 1944 “Eat a Good Breakfast – Do a Better Job” campaign of cereal manufacturer General Foods which pushed the importance of breakfast to the level it holds today. By handing out pamphlets in grocery stores and running radio ads featuring the now famous “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” line, General Foods popularised the importance of breakfast – along with their line of breakfast cereals, which provided a convenient way to take the stress out of preparing it.
While many nutrition experts do agree that breakfast is important for maintaining health, it’s safe to say that it wouldn’t have the standing it does today without the huge marketing effort involved. This single, well-planned advertising campaign still affects the way we structure our meals, even more than 70 years later.
3. Bad Breath
Strictly speaking, Listerine didn’t invent bad breath. All they did was popularize the Latin word ‘halitosis’ to describe it, and market their general disinfectant product as a convenient, instant cure.
It was their 1925 ad campaign featuring Edna, a young woman whose bad breath made certain that she was “often a bridesmaid but never a bride” (yes, that’s where the saying comes from), which shifted the public’s view of oral odour: no longer was it just a personal inconvenience, but an embarrassing medical issue which could be conveniently fixed with a quick swish of Listerine.
Listerine had already been used as a general antiseptic since 1879, but their campaign completely rebranded their product and launched them into a totally new market of their own creation and helped to make our world a little less smelly.
4. Body Odour
Much like bad breath, body odour was around for centuries before a ground-breaking ad campaign convinced consumers that it needed to be fixed. The original Odorono (Odour? Oh no!) brand deodorant reduced sweat and smell for up to three days after it was applied, but didn’t sell very well thanks to the perceptions of the time: men were expected to smell musky, and women didn’t discuss the topic in public.
It was a genius copywriter who revolutionised Odorono in 1919, using copy so scandalous that it allegedly caused 200 women to cancel their subscription to Ladies Home Journal when it was first published – mentioning bodily fluids (including sweat) was still taboo at the time. The “Within the Curve of a Woman’s Arm” print ad broke social barriers and created a public dislike of bodily odour that brought deodorant and antiperspirants to popularity, creating an industry that’s now worth $20 billion a year.
It’s now been over 100 years since the original campaign launched, and deodorant is still a necessary step in most people’s daily routines. One legendary ad campaign has revolutionised the way we view our bodily functions, and helped to make our day-to-day lives smell a little better.
5. Dyeing Hair
Hair dye has been used in various forms for thousands of years, but it was associated with prostitutes and “fast” women up until the 1950s – and was definitely a faux pas for polite, western women. It was considered fake, flaky, and socially unacceptable until the mid-1950s.
Clairol’s 1956 “does she… or doesn’t she?” ad campaign performed two ground-breaking feats at once: not only did it challenge public perceptions by showing that hair dye can look real and natural, it launched a revolutionary (and discreet) at-home alternative to the expensive salon treatments of the time.
Showing off a young mother sporting flawlessly blonde hair, the ad subtly posed a question that challenged public perceptions: ‘if no one can tell if your hair is dyed, then what’s the social risk?’ The sentiment quickly took off – by 1968, hair dye was so popular that Americans were no longer asked to state their hair colour on passports, since the information was now pointless.
Nowadays, dyeing hair is pretty commonplace. Box dyes are available in most supermarkets and drug stores, and most people see no shame in using them. Clairol’s ad campaign all but eliminated a prevalent social barrier, and made an impact that can still be seen over 60 years later.
6. Diamond Engagement Rings
Rings have been a symbol of matrimony since ancient times, but diamonds had no association with commitment, love, or marriage until 1948. They were exclusively a symbol of the upper class, and only associated with the wealthiest of people.
It was diamond mining and manufacturing cartel De Beers who decided to rebrand the diamond as a symbol of love used by the average consumer, rather than a symbol of extravagant wealth and luxury. With the help of ad agency N.W. Ayer, they developed their now-famous “a diamond is forever’ slogan and framed the diamond as the token of everlasting love that we use today.
If it weren’t for a legendary ad campaign which completely reshaped the industry and retargeted diamonds to a new audience, we likely wouldn’t have the iconic symbol of marriage that we do today. Even though the copywriter and company behind the slogan are no longer with us, their work continues to make a mark on the world.
7. Coffee Breaks
The concept of a coffee break originated from the union movement of the 1940s and 50s, when workers banded together to demand safe working conditions, controlled working hours, and short breaks throughout the day. Needless to say, the movement wasn’t very popular with many employers.
The Pan-American Coffee Bureau realised they could capitalise on the union movement by pushing the effects of its caffeinated product – If taking a short break for coffee could increase worker productivity and efficiency, why shouldn’t employers allow it? The idea quickly caught on with workers, and employers saw the merit soon after. Within months of their “Give yourself a coffee break” campaign’s first publication in 1952, up to 80% of US businesses had introduced a coffee break to their daily schedule.
Nowadays, taking a coffee break is a cultural norm. The Pan American Coffee Bureau may not exist anymore, but its genius advertising has left a mark on the world so strong that short “coffee” breaks are now the norm in the workplace, and often protected by law.